Your guess is as good as anyone’s when trying to determine which team will emerge as Southwest Conference champion in the National Premier Soccer League this season.
The division boasted four teams with excellent records in 2017. Defending champion FC Arizona, Orange County FC, Riverside Coras and ASC San Diego (formerly Albion SC) were separated by six points after the 16-game regular season. And they are primed to make another serious run to the postseason.
“It’s a difficult question to select ‘a team’ in this conference,” Riverside Coras president and manager Rob Lopez said. “Arizona, San Diego and Orange County and now adding Golden State, makes it hard to select the winning team. These are all great programs and will do good on the pitch.”
Temecula FC owner Brandon Jantz agreed.
“We have the strongest conference I’ve seen in the five years we have been involved in the NPSL,” he said. “Like many leagues around the world I think it will come down to which club spends the most money on their squad.”
Added Orange County SC president Nader Debash: “Every opponent is tough to beat.”
FC Arizona doesn’t have any plans to give up the NPSL Southwest Conference crown.
With several key players returning and a few new faces to bulk up its depth, FC Arizona is deep and talented at every position, according to owner Scott Taylor.
Taylor likes his team’s chances to repeat as conference champions “because, we have done it before, and know what it takes to get there.”
If FC Arizona can match last year’s record (12-0-4) and production (outscoring the opposition, 47-3), it should be just fine.
Head coach Maxi Vieira, a former Uruguayan First Division player who played with the San Jose Clash (Major League Soccer) and was an assistant coach with the Qatar national team in 2015, has put together another formidable side that could rival last year’s 12-0-4 finish.
Chris Ramsell and Nacho Coba are expected to anchor the midfield again with Cesar Mexia, a West Region Best XI selection, leading the forward charge. They will be helped by a few newcomers, including center back Luke Lavanway, right back Tyler Feeley and midfielder Noah Vulovich.
“Certainly the conference is well respected,” Taylor said. “We definitely respect the other teams in the SW Conference. But, we hope to defend the Southwest Conference title.”
Orange County FC
Coached by former U.S. international Paul Caligiuri, Orange County FC (10-1-5) figures to be in the mix this season.
Orange County FC boasts plenty of quality, including defender Michael Bryant, an NPSL third-team selection, midfielder Connor Gordon, an NPSL second team pick, and Brandon Gomez, plus newcomers Dakota Collins and Cody Shelton.
The team led the conference with 65 goals, 18 more than its closest competitor, FC Arizona.
If there is one thing Orange County FC would like to improve on, it would be to “scout players outside of Southern California,” team president Nader Debash said.
Is this the year the Riverside Coras (11-3-2) go from bridesmaids to conference champions?
Club president and manager Rob Lopez certainly thinks so.
“We have fallen short, stuck in second place for couple of seasons,” he said. “I believe we’ve gained valuable experience and our veteran leaders will lead us into a championship title this year.”
Lopez’s optimism is based on six key returnees — goalkeeper Alonso Lara and forward Shane Shelton, defender-midfielder Hugo Gutierrez, defender Jimmy Ross, defender Jose Perez and Ramon Nunez for head coach Gabe Placencia.
Asabi Gbanzi, Diallo Idi, Hernandez Jose Alberto, Vallejo Antonio, Zaragoza Fred, Torres Alexis are among the key newcomers that will provide support to the veterans.
“This is an exciting group of players, lots of new faces with great young talent,” Lopez said. “We feel we could dictate the style of play and tempo, quickness or slowly breaking down the opponent.”
ASC San Diego
ASC San Diego (11-4-1), formerly Albion SC which finished fourth last season, is expected to be in the mix.
Head coach Ziggy Korytoski said the team “should be good in goal,” with “a strong back line and the Golden Boot winner returning.”
That boot belongs to forward Amani Walker, who shared the award with Orange County FC forward Alessandro Canale. Both players scored a league-best 18 goals.
He will be aided by returning starters Felipe Liborio and Jean Antoine and newly signed Marius Heislitz and Aleks Berkholds.
Temecula FC owner Brandon Jantz isn’t necessarily hoping to vie for the title, but to develop players.
Coached by Austin Levins, Temecula FC will try to improve on its sixth-place finish and 5-8-3 mark of a year ago.
“To be honest I feel a league title is still a season or two away as we have some very strong clubs in our league with much bigger budgets and in much large markets,” Jantz said. “But we will have a team that gives everything for its supporters and community.”
That’s because the team uses younger players. So, there is always a learning curve, but that’s fine with Jantz, who felt the squad’s fitness will take it far.
“We love to get our young players involved, but they are learning and going up against current professional players or former professional players is a real test,” he said. “It helps develop our young players but it does not always lead to favorable results on the pitch.”
Defender Steven Lamberta, who tallied twice in Temecula’s 2-2 preseason draw with La Sierra University Feb. 25, and midfielder Ryan Brent are the two key returnees.
Newly acquired Ben Chamberlin and Dean Meltz will vie for the starting goalkeeper spot while Sergio Lopez is expected to help solidify the midfield.
Oxnard Guerreros FC
The learning curve was a steep one for Oxnard Guerreros FC during the 2017 season and knowledge could go a long way this year.
“We have a full season under our belt and know what to expect in this league now,” team owner Ty Otto said. “We have a new coach with fresh ideas, and he has had the opportunity in the preseason to add players who fit his system.”
The new coach is Juan Florez, who has kept several players from a 5-10-1 team, including central midfielders Tito Anguiano and Luis Rivera and forward Tito Emmanuel Ayken.
Florez also brought in some fresh blood in Moises (striker) and Emilio (center back) Orozco, who have had stints in Major League Soccer, North American Soccer League and United Soccer League.
Oxnard had a strong attack last year, but needs to “shore up our back line,” Otto said.
“Too often we found ourselves being exposed because we left a lot of gaps,” he said, adding that the team “also must fix mental lapses and play a complete game, rather than 80 minutes.”
In the offseason the club did its homework. It hosted the 2017 OGFC Combine Cup for the City of Oxnard as eight local teams competed in front of OGFC coaches.
“It was a great event for the community and young standouts such as Raul Gonzalez and Roy Solis emerged, earning a spot for the upcoming season,” Otto said.
How optimistic is Otto?
“I truly believe we will be the team to beat,” he said. “We have added really good players and an excellent coach who has been working with the team since early January. Coming to Oxnard is going to be a challenge for our opposition.”
FC Golden State
FC Golden State will make its NPSL debut this season.
Golden Gate Conference
Sonoma County Sol FC
Coach Vinnie Cortezzo likes what he sees. He likes what he sees so much that he feels Sonoma County Sol FC can make a run at its second NPSL crown in its history, having secured the 2009.
“We believe Sol has the talent to win the conference and make another run at a national title,” he said.
Cortezzo’s optimism is based on the fact Sonoma has an experienced core returning and some strong new talent.
The defense is solid with the likes of experienced goalkeeper Sean Taufer and defenders Chris Rodd and Ryan Rohane. Michel Arroyo will bring experience to the midfield as will Omar Nuno to the front line.
The backline has been shored up with the additions of Eric Alvarado and Dane Shaffer. Josh Sanchez and Maury Lopez will contribute to the midfield.
CD Aguiluchos USA
If you take a look at the trajectory of the CD Aguiluchos USA, it is going only one way — up.
In its first NPSL season in 2013, the team finished in fourth place in the Northern Division, took third the next year in the Golden Gate Conference before duplicating the feat in 2015 while reaching the national semifinal. In 2016, the Oakland, Calif.-based club was runner-up and reached the postseason again. In 2017, the squad won the conference crown with an 8-3-1 record and qualified for the national semifinals.
Last year CD Aguiluchos USA was led by defender Ricardo Guerra, an All-NPSL first-team selection, and forward Simon Rawnsley, who earned second team honors.
East Bay Stompers
Last season the East Bay Stompers (3-6-3) scored all of 14 goals, which placed the team next last in the division.
So, not surprisingly, the team went out and bulked up at that position with six new faces and a dozen fresh legs.
“This is where we would drastically like to improve,” owner Bill Forte said.
The new forwards included Gustavo Tavera-Rico, a former team leading scorer who returns to the club last playing there in 2015, Jorge Ruiz, who played professionally in El Salvador, Michael Tieku and Rajaee Delane.
Other new faces were Luis “Manotas” Castro, a former CD FAS and El Salvador national team goalkeeper, defender Gerardo Moya and midfielder Nigus Solomon. Forte promised even more acquisitions for head coach Martin Sierra and technical director Dave Mahabali.
East Bay’s strength is in the back. Luis “Luigi” Castillo, who missed the 2017 season with an injury is healthy again. Gilbert Coulibaly, Jesus Leon and Emanuel Vazquez give the side depth at center back while Prince Bere, Michael Molinari, and Ali Radmand are slated to patrol the flanks on defense.
The midfield will be paced by Arturo Gomez, Jorge Butron, and Zanin Mahic give a consistent strength to our midfield. And that’s not to forget Khalid Arramdani, the team’s all-time NPSL goal-scoring leader.
“We are solid all over the pitch this season,” Forte said. “I believe as long we stay consistent we won’t have any particular strength.
“We would like to believe this is our year to climb to the top and that the East Bay FC Stompers will be the team to beat but I guess we will find that out at the end of our 14-game regular season.”
El Farolito FC
As one of three new teams in the division, El Farolito FC head coach Santiago Lopez admitted his squad’s lack of experience could be a drawback.
“It’s our first year in the league and we don’t know the road ahead,” he said, adding that only two players on the roster have NPSL experience.
One player that Lopez is counting on is forward Carlos Montes, who scored five goals in two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup qualifying matches.
Attacking midfielder Dominic Hertz, known for his work ethic, and outside mid Julio Herrera are expected to contribute as well.
One strength is the team’s home venue, Boxer Stadium. “Our home field is not easy to play on,” Lopez said. “It can go bad for any team at any time.”
El Farolito FC’s goals are simple.
“We are focused in starting the season on the right track and hopefully we can be one of the top teams in our conference and qualify for the playoffs,” Lopez said.
FC Davis also will be taking its first steps in the NPSL.
“Getting used to conference play and the teams and playing locations takes time,” team president Adam Lewin said.
Still, Lewin has liked what he has seen.
“We are a technical, athletic [team] and deep at every position,” he said.
“FC Davis could win the title due to the quality and depth we have at every position, when you combine that with great coaching.”
Guided by head coach Andrew Bailey, the director of coaching at Northbay Elite, FC Davis’s strength is in its midfield with Onah Power, Carlos Carranza, Allan Espinoza and Miguel Acevedo. Greg Salazar will help anchor the backline.
Another first-year team, Academica SC has several players who performed together in college. So, the players are already familiar with one another.
“We think we can compete from day one and we are aiming to make playoffs,” club president Simon Bettencourt said.
In fact, Academica SC hope to turn a head or two, even though only a few players have played at this level before this year.
“Besides El Farolito and Napa, we’re an unknown to the rest of the teams,” Bettencourt said. “They don’t know what to expect from us and that can help us surprise some of them.”
Coach Sergio Sousa will rely on defenders Jorge Andrade, Arnaldo Gutierrez and Brennen Canfield and midfielders Gerardo Cazares and David Esparza and defender Brennen Canfield.
Napa Valley 1839 FC
After finishing in fifth and in last place in 2017, Napa Valley 1839 (1-6-5) has nowhere to go but up as it tries to bolster its attack (division-low 13 goals).
Finishing out of a playoff berth by two points last season, Sacramento Gold (4-3-5) will try to reach the postseason.
Sacramento boasted the conference’s best defense, allowing 18 goals.
Midfielder Danny Cuevas was a West Region Best XI selection.